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Feature Stories

How to keep your brain in shape

Cindy Richards, LifeTimes Editor

Just about everyone has experienced it – that moment when you walk into a room and can't remember why you went. Or being unable to remember where you left the car keys. Or what you needed from the grocery store.

Those "senior moments" are a normal part of the aging process (and a phenomenon that is not limited to people over 65). Just like other parts of our bodies, our brains lose capacity as we age.

It might be normal, but it can still be scary when you notice you are being more forgetful. How do you know when it's just a senior moment and not something more serious?

The Alzheimer's Association has a list of 10 early signs of Alzheimer's to help distinguish between forgetfulness and Alzheimer's. Among them: Have you forgotten where you put your car keys, or have you forgotten how to get home from your favorite restaurant? Did you make a math mistake when balancing your checkbook, or have you forgotten the steps to balance a checkbook, a task you have done every month for umpteen years? Depending on the answers, it might be time to see a doctor who can diagnose whether the symptoms are a normal part of aging or something more serious.

There are more than 150 research studies going on right now aimed at learning more about Alzheimer's disease. While there are no definitive results that show what can be done to prevent Alzheimer's, Heather Snyder, director of Medical and Scientific Operations for the Alzheimer's Association, says that in general, things that are good for your body, especially your heart, also may be good for your brain.

That includes a heart-healthy diet rich in Omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish, nuts, oatmeal) and the nutrients found in richly colored fruits and vegetables (blueberries, carrots, broccoli, bell peppers, spinach and other green leafy vegetables), Snyder says. Physical activity also seems to be important, although it's unclear what type of activities are most helpful, and exactly how much. Some studies suggest a link between aerobic exercise (work-outs that raise your heart rate) and improved brain functions while others point to resistance or weight-training (work-outs that build your muscles) as good for your brain.

Exercise your brain

In addition to exercising your body, it's important to keep your brain active. If you are having trouble remembering important dates or funny stories from the past, it might mean that the neurons in your brain that first formed those memories aren't being exercised.

Among the mental push-ups you can try:

  • Travel, which challenges you to adapt to new experiences and surroundings
  • Learning something new, such as studying a new language, to engage a different part of your brain
  • Brain games such as Sudoku, crossword puzzles, and word games

It's important to "continue to learn and experience new things. When we do, we form circuits in our brains, ultimately increasing functional power," says Takara Wallace, lead nurse at Chicagoland Methodist Senior Services' Hartwell, which serves Alzheimer's and dementia patients.

More on brain fitness: